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The One and the Many: An Excursus on I Corinthians 12

“Just as the body is one and has many members, and all the members of the body, though many, are one body, so it is with Christ. For in one Spirit we were all baptized into one body- Jews or Greeks, slaves or free- and all were made to drink of one Spirit.”

The Church’s principle of unity is incorporation into Christ through the Spirit unto the Father. Christ is the center, the Head, and we make up His body, drawing our formation and existence from Him, the Spirit grafting individuals into the body, thus making them ‘members’. God composes His body from persons, from ‘members’: He takes individuals, formerly existing in the world as ‘autonomous’ individuals, in darkness and death, because of their severance from the life of God. But in the Spirit they are baptized into a body: and a body is composed of members- not individuals subsisting in independence from each other and from God, but persons, members subsisting in an organic unity, like the organs of a biological body. This is key to understanding what is meant by Church, for without the proper understanding of the ‘one of the many’ we will denigrate either into an assemblage of autonomous individuals or failure to recognize all members in their vitalness and significance.

Existence in Christ is the ultimate expression of personhood and of community, because both must exist for the body to exist. St. Paul expresses this truth in various ways in this passage. He begins by presenting the idea of the one and the many: the body is one. The Church is community, a body, and she is one, not to be severed into portions- for a severed body is a dying one. But she is composed of many members. These members are taken from the world, with its particulars and divisions- the division of man into races, social status, age, ranks, and so on- but out of these divisions the Spirit creates members, persons, who drink of Him, and are thus grafted into a body. This is done without a loss of the individual member’s unique personality, but rather realizes each member’s personality in the community of the body of Christ.

The Church is not a ‘boiling pot’, a place in which personal existence must subside into an impersonal whole. “For the body does not consist of one member but of many.” (v. 14) In fact, the body’s existence is conditioned by its being made up of the ‘many’: the community must be formed of persons: unique, unrepeatable beings. And the members of the body are true persons, possessing distinction from each other- though not division or severance. “If the whole body were an eye, where would the sense of hearing be?” Each possesses importance within the body, each being necessary to the body’s proper functioning, with this importance lying in the member’s distinction from each other: but not division. “But God has so composed the body, giving greater honor to the part that lacked it, that there may be no division in the body, but that the members may have the same care for one another.” (v.’s 24-25) “If all were a single member, where would the body be?” (v. 19) There is no body without members; likewise, the members find their being in the body, not apart from it or each other.

The members’s identity should not be understood only in terms of their ‘natural’ distinctiveness: as St. Paul says, in Christ there is neither Jew nor Greek, slave nor free, and so on. This is not to say, of course, that these elements of personal identity are consumed completely in Christ; rather, they are transformed, and the division they have caused is removed. Rather than points of division, these elements of identity help to form the body, and in the Spirit are elements of communion between persons. But these ‘natural’ distinctions are not the most important ones. Rather, the Spirit creates uniqueness within the body especially through the manifestation of His gifts (I Cor. 12:4-11). As John Zizilioulas points out in Being as Communion, the Spirit creates orders within the Church, and in so doing, creates the condition for communion among unique persons, their uniqueness and ‘function’ formed by the Spirit. All Christians participate in an ‘order’, and all Christians participate in gifts of the Spirit: “To each is given the manifestation of the Spirit for the common good.” (v. 7) The hierarchy of the Church is to be thought of with all the members in mind. The bishop must be with the laity, and the laity with the bishop: neither can exist on its own, for its own sake, but they must form an organic whole, with all orders existing together in communion. All are necessary for all: “The eye cannot say to the hand, ‘I have no need of you,’ nor again the head to the feet, ‘I have no need of you.’” (v. 21) Christ brings all the members into His body, and gives each meaning and purpose in Himself.

And most importantly, the Spirit creates personhood and communion through love. I Corinthians 12 flows directly into chapter 13, the famous chapter on love. For the love that St. Paul describes is realized in the body, through the manifestation of the Spirit, and realizes the body. Love in Christ is the ‘movement’ of the body, and the binding power: “And above all these put on love, which binds everything together in perfect harmony.” (Colossians 3:14) The ‘growth from God’ advances in love, building the body up in unity and communion. Love is the relation between persons, between members, that makes the body to subsist. And it is the Spirit Who ‘sheds abroad’ the love of God in us, bringing individual members into unity through love for each other through love for and in God. “If one member suffers, all suffer together; if one member is honored, all rejoice together.” (v. 26)

Christ is the true realization of personhood and community both, because in Him human beings are brought into the life of the Triune God. The relation of the members in the body reflects the relation that God has within Himself: as the Lord prayed in the garden, “Let them be one as we are one.” The Church must always hold in constant attention the truth of the Trinity, because it is in the Trinity that she finds her life. Christ, in His Incarnation, Crucifixion, Resurrection, and Ascension, has made the way for men to enter into the Triune life in Himself. He has partaken of our fallen realities so that we might, in Him, be freed from that falleness, and enter into His body, the Church, in which our existence is given true being and life in God. In Him we are no longer discordant and divided, from each other and from God, but instead we have a single direction: in the Son, through the Spirit crying “Abba, Father,” we live unto the Father. God is our life, the other is our life. Whereas before we found the other to be ‘original sin’ as Sartre said, now we find life in the Other, and embrace the other in love.

And it is only in the Church, the very body of Christ, that personhood and community can be realized. In the experience of the world, we see attempts at both. Individualism, particularly as manifested in humanistic liberalism, seeks to locate the person and free him from the crippling and consuming forces that bear against him. However, in so doing, the individual must be ‘protected’ from the other, from the community, which causes severance. On the other hand, socialism and various other philosophies seek to form community, but they do so at the expense of the person. The person is not indispensable in a communist society; he can be freely sacrificed for the ‘good’ of the community. All the systems of the world seek to fill the existential longing of man, but all fail ultimately, because in rejecting the Triune God revealed in the Incarnation, they reject the only possible hope of man, who is made for communion in personhood.


Blogger Karl Thienes said...

You might want to increase the point size of your posts....

11:49 PM  
Blogger Jonathan said...

There- fixed it. I won't say how long it took me to figure out how to do so. My method of tweaking blogger templates is strictly trial and error, mostly error.

12:42 PM  

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